Senate Homeland chair vents Mueller probe is preventing panel from receiving oversight answers

Senate Homeland chair vents Mueller probe is preventing panel from receiving oversight answers
© Greg Nash

The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday vented that special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE's probe has prevented his panel from receiving answers on outstanding oversight questions, pointing to documents related to the FBI’s decisionmaking during the 2016 election.

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonDemocrats make U-turn on calling border a 'manufactured crisis' Democrats make U-turn on calling border a 'manufactured crisis' GOP frets about Trump's poll numbers MORE (R-Wis.) told FBI Director Christopher Wray that he has been “very restrained” in his quest to view key — and highly sensitive — documents during a committee hearing. 

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Johnson particularly pointed to the surveillance warrant application the FBI used to wiretap former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, forms filled out by FBI agents regarding their conversations with Department of Justice (DOJ) official Bruce Ohr known as "302s", and the so-called McCabe memos.

The New York Times reported last month that former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabeAndrew George McCabeMcCabe says it's 'absolutely' time to launch impeachment inquiry into Trump McCabe says it's 'absolutely' time to launch impeachment inquiry into Trump Feds gone wild: DOJ's stunning inability to prosecute its own bad actors MORE reportedly wrote contemporaneous memos in which he documented Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinTrump blasts Mueller, decries 'witch hunt' at 2020 launch Trump blasts Mueller, decries 'witch hunt' at 2020 launch Trump: I didn't fire Mueller since firings 'didn't work out too well' for Nixon MORE telling other officials he wanted to wear a wire when talking to President TrumpDonald John TrumpBooker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Booker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Trump says Democrats are handing out subpoenas 'like they're cookies' MORE, following the firing of FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyIntel chairman says FBI starting to answer questions on Russia probe Intel chairman says FBI starting to answer questions on Russia probe Want the truth? Put your money on Bill Barr, not Jerry Nadler MORE.

The story also said Rosenstein, the No. 2 DOJ official, discussed the possibility last year of Cabinet officials invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. Rosenstein and the DOJ have fiercely disputed the report.

When Johnson asked whether the committee will be able to review the memo, Wray said he will “have to get back to you on that.” He specifically pointed to the "ongoing special counsel investigation," which Rosenstein is overseeing.

“That is always the problem, which is one of the reasons I do not agree with the special counsel at this point of time. It prevents the people’s house … from getting to the truth and holding people accountable,” Johnson interjected.

“It has held up — I’ve been doing this job for four years as chairman and every time there is a criminal investigation, Congress can’t get information — so the American people can’t get information,” he said.

Johnson pointed to five letters that he has sent the FBI, which he said have yet to receive adequate responses. He said three letters received parsed responses and two received no response. The chairman noted that unlike some House committees which are also seeking these classified materials, he has not asked the bureau to turn over 1.2 million documents.

Wray conceded that he wants to do a better job of producing documents, while also citing the “many oversight requests” the bureau has received from different congressional committees.

The FBI chief also defended not “ripping off the bandaid” and releasing these highly sensitive documents for review.

“I think the topics that we are talking about are extremely sensitive intelligence operations. I understand the attraction of the rip-off-the-band-aid approach, but I also understand that in many cases we are talking about foreign partner relationships, tradecraft and all kinds of other things that we need to be very careful about protecting,” Wray said.

His defense of protecting these materials comes after Trump initially authorized a series of classified Russia-probe related documents to be released last month. He later walked back the release, citing “key allies” who have expressed concerns about releasing documents such as the Page surveillance application. Trump announced the delay, tweeting that the Justice Department’s inspector general is reviewing the classified documents, while also warning that he could declassify the documents unilaterally "if it proves necessary."

Other GOP lawmakers also pressed Wray on surveillance.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate to vote Thursday to block Trump's Saudi arms deal Senate to vote Thursday to block Trump's Saudi arms deal Overnight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran MORE (R-Ky.) took to Twitter to say that Wray would not answer a question about whether intelligence agencies like the FBI and NSA are listening in on Trump’s conversations.

“I asked [Wray] if @realDonaldTrump phone conversations are getting collected in the FISA database. He wouldn't answer. Is NSA or FBI listening in on our President? We know bad actors exist within intel community. REFORM NEEDED NOW,” Paul tweeted shortly after the hearing, referring to a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) database.

But Paul’s attempts to get Wray to answer the question go against the FBI practice of neither confirming nor denying such activities.

"I'm not sure there's anything I could speak to in this setting,” Wray responded to Paul’s questions about Trump calls.

The FBI typically does not confirm or deny many of its activities such as open investigations or using sensitive surveillance practices. Doing so would create a scenario where the bureau denied some practices but not others.